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Churches and charities caught in foreign influence net

  • 08 February 2018


7 December 2017 was the last sitting day of the Commonwealth Parliament last year. The media spotlight understandably was on the historic vote in the parliament giving the go ahead to same sex marriage.

Meanwhile, the pressure was on Labor's Sam Dastyari to resign from the Senate in the wake of his dealings with Chinese business interests and of his political actions which may have been influenced by such dealings. Also, both sides of politics were having to admit that they had received significant donations from Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo. Immediately following the bipartisan euphoria on the passage of the same sex marriage legislation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced to the House of Representatives a series of bills including the very shoddily drafted Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017.

He told Parliament that the government was sticking to three principles: 'we are focused on the activities of foreign states and their agents in Australia and not the loyalties of Australians who happen to be from a foreign country'; 'interference is unacceptable from any country whether you might think of it as friend, foe or ally'; and 'we will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt'. He asserted, 'That is the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.'

These three principles are fine. But the proposed legislation goes well beyond these principles. The line has not been well drawn. The legislation defines 'registrable activities' and then sets out a series of exemptions. The web of registrable activities is impossibly wide. The public servants trying to explain the operation of the bill gave an example of a priest preaching against euthanasia, asserting that 'the priest's position is consistent with the Catholic Church's position on voluntary euthanasia, as determined by Vatican City' and would thus be a registrable activity because the Vatican is a foreign government. But this registrable activity would then be exempt. They explained that the 'exemption seeks to avoid the activities of the churches affiliated with foreign government, such as the Catholic Church, being registrable under the scheme'. The drafters of the legislation have an Orwellian view that Catholics operate at the direction of foreign operatives.

The government hoped that the public consultation on this legislation would be complete before both Houses of Parliament resumed on 5 February 2018. But the shoddy drafting has occasioned such public concern that Andrew Hastie who is chairing the Parliamentary